Did the Early Church Teach That God Is a Trinity?
Part 2—Did the Apostolic Fathers Teach the Trinity Doctrine?
In The Watchtower of November 1, 1991, Part 1 of this series discussed whether Jesus and his disciples taught the Trinity doctrine—the idea that the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit were three equal persons but one God. The clear evidence from the Bible, from historians, and even from theologians is that they did not. What of church leaders who followed soon afterward—did they teach a Trinity?
“APOSTOLIC FATHERS” is the designation used for churchmen who wrote about Christianity in the late first and early second centuries of our Common Era. Some of them were Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, and Papias.
They were said to be contemporaries of some of the apostles. Thus, they should have been familiar with apostolic teachings. Regarding what those men wrote, The New Encyclopædia Britannica says:
“Taken as a whole the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are more valuable historically than any other Christian literature outside the New Testament.”1
If the apostles taught the Trinity doctrine, then those Apostolic Fathers should have taught it too. It should have been prominent in their teaching, since nothing was more important than telling people who God is. So did they teach the Trinity doctrine?
An Early Statement of Faith
One of the earliest non-Biblical statements of Christian faith is found in a book of 16 short chapters known as The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Some historians date it before or about the year 100 C.E. Its author is unknown.2
The Didache deals with things people would need to know to become Christians. In its 7th chapter, it prescribes baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the same words Jesus used at Matthew 28:19.3 But it says nothing about the three being equal in eternity, power, position, and wisdom. In its 10th chapter, The Didache includes the following confession of faith in the form of a prayer:
“We thank you, Holy Father, for your holy Name which you have made to dwell in our hearts; and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us through Jesus your Servant. Glory to you forever! You, Almighty Master, created everything for your Name’s sake . . . And to us you have graciously given spiritual food and drink, and life eternal through Jesus your Servant.”4
There is no Trinity in this. In The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, Edwin Hatch quotes the foregoing passage and then says:
“In the original sphere of Christianity there does not appear to have been any great advance upon these simple conceptions. The doctrine upon which stress was laid was, that God is, that He is one, that He is almighty and everlasting, that He made the world, that His mercy is over all His works. There was no taste for metaphysical discussion.”5
Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome, thought to have been a “bishop” in that city, is another early source of writings on Christianity. It is believed that he died about 100 C.E. In the material said to have been written by him, he makes no mention of a Trinity, either directly or indirectly. In the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, he states:
“Grace unto you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied.”
“The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ.”
“May God, who seeth all things, and who is the Ruler of all spirits and the Lord of all flesh—who chose our Lord Jesus Christ and us through Him to be a peculiar people—grant to every soul that calleth upon His glorious and holy Name, faith, fear, peace, patience, long-suffering.”6
Clement does not say that Jesus or the holy spirit is equal to God. He presents Almighty God (not just “Father”) as distinct from the Son. God is spoken of as superior, since Christ is “sent forth” by God, and God “chose” Christ. Showing that God and Christ are two separate and unequal identities, Clement said:
“We will beg with earnest prayer and supplication that the Creator of the universe will keep intact the precise number of his elect in the whole world, through his beloved Child Jesus Christ. . . . We realize you [God] alone are ‘highest among the highest’ . . . You alone are the guardian of spirits and the God of all flesh.”
“Let all the nations realize that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your Child.”7
Clement calls God (not just “Father”) “the highest,” and refers to Jesus as God’s “Child.” He also notes regarding Jesus: “Since he reflects God’s splendor, he is as superior to the angels as his title is more distinguished than theirs.”8 Jesus reflects God’s splendor, but he does not equal it, just as the moon reflects sunlight but does not equal the source of that light, the sun.
If the Son of God were equal to God, who is the heavenly Father, it would have been unnecessary for Clement to say that Jesus was superior to the angels, since that would have been obvious. And his wording shows his recognition that while the Son is superior to angels, he is inferior to Almighty God.
Clement’s position is quite plain: The Son is inferior to the Father and is secondary to him. Clement never viewed Jesus as sharing in a godhead with the Father. He shows that the Son is dependent upon the Father, that is, God, and says definitely that the Father is ‘God alone,’ sharing His position with no one. And nowhere does Clement give the holy spirit equality with God. Thus, there is no Trinity at all in Clement’s writings.
Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, lived from about the middle of the first century C.E. to early in the second century. Assuming that all the writings attributed to him were authentic, in none of them is there an equality of Father, Son, and holy spirit.
Even if Ignatius had said that the Son was equal to the Father in eternity, power, position, and wisdom, it would still not be a Trinity, for nowhere did he say that the holy spirit was equal to God in those ways. But Ignatius did not say that the Son was equal to God the Father in such ways or in any other. Instead, he showed that the Son is in subjection to the One who is superior, Almighty God.
Ignatius calls Almighty God “the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son,” showing the distinction between God and His Son.9 He speaks of “God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”10 And he declares: “There is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son.”11
Ignatius shows that the Son was not eternal as a person but was created, for he has the Son saying: “The Lord [Almighty God] created Me, the beginning of His ways.”12 Similarly, Ignatius said: “There is one God of the universe, the Father of Christ, ‘of whom are all things;’ and one Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord, ‘by whom are all things.’”13 He also writes:
“The Holy Spirit does not speak His own things, but those of Christ, . . . even as the Lord also announced to us the things that He received from the Father. For, says He [the Son], ‘the word which ye hear is not Mine, but the Father’s, who sent Me.’”14
“There is one God who manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which proceeded from silence and in every respect pleased him [God] who sent him. . . . Jesus Christ was subject to the Father.”15
True, Ignatius calls the Son “God the Word.” But using the word “God” for the Son does not necessarily mean equality with Almighty God. The Bible also calls the Son “God” at Isaiah 9:6. John 1:18 calls the Son “the only-begotten god.” Being vested with power and authority from Jehovah God, the Father, the Son could properly be termed a “mighty one,” which is what “god” basically means.—Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2.
However, are the 15 letters attributed to Ignatius accepted as authentic? In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, editors Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson state:
“It is now the universal opinion of critics, that the first eight of these professedly Ignatian letters are spurious. They bear in themselves indubitable proofs of being the production of a later age . . . and they are now by common consent set aside as forgeries.”
“Of the seven Epistles which are acknowledged by Eusebius . . . , we possess two Greek recensions, a shorter and a longer. . . . Although the shorter form . . . had been generally accepted in preference to the longer, there was still a pretty prevalent opinion among scholars, that even it could not be regarded as absolutely free from interpolations, or as of undoubted authenticity.”16
If we accept the shorter version of his writings as genuine, it does eliminate some phrases (in the longer version) that show Christ as subordinate to God, but what is left in the shorter version still does not show a Trinity. And regardless of which of his writings are genuine, they show at best that Ignatius believed in a duality of God and his Son. This was certainly not a duality of equals, for the Son is always presented as lesser than God and subordinate to him. Thus, regardless of how one views the Ignatian writings, a Trinity doctrine is not to be found in them.
Polycarp of Smyrna was born in the last third of the first century and died in the middle of the second. It is said that he had contact with the apostle John, and he is said to have written the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.
Was there anything in Polycarp’s writing that would indicate a Trinity? No, there is no mention of it. Indeed, what he says is consistent with what Jesus and his disciples and apostles taught. For instance, in his Epistle, Polycarp stated:
“May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, . . . build you up in faith and truth.”17
Note that, like Clement, Polycarp does not speak of a Trinitarian “Father” and “Son” relationship of equals in a godhead. Instead, he speaks of “the God and Father” of Jesus, not just ‘the Father of Jesus.’ So he separates God from Jesus, just as the Bible writers repeatedly do. Paul says at 2 Corinthians 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He does not just say, ‘Blessed be the Father of Jesus’ but, “Blessed be the God and Father” of Jesus.
Also, Polycarp says: “Peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour.”18 Here again, Jesus is distinct from Almighty God, not one person of an equal triune Godhead.
Hermas and Papias
Another Apostolic Father is Hermas, who wrote in the first part of the second century. In his work the Shepherd, or Pastor, does he say anything that would lead one to believe that he understood God to be a Trinity? Note some examples of what he said:
“Nor when man wishes the spirit to speak does the Holy Spirit speak, but it speaks only when God wishes it to speak. . . . God planted the vineyard, that is to say, He created the people, and gave them to His Son; and the Son appointed His angels over them to keep them.”19
“The Son of God is older than all his creation.”20
Here Hermas says that when God (not just the Father) wishes the spirit to speak, it speaks, showing God’s superiority to the spirit. And he says that God gave the vineyard to his Son, showing God’s superiority to the Son. He also states that the Son of God is older than his, the Son’s, creatures, that is, those the Son of God created as God’s Master Worker, “because by means of him all other things were created in the heavens and upon the earth.” (Colossians 1:15, 16) The fact is that the Son is not eternal. He was created as a spirit creature of high rank, before other spirit creatures, such as the angels, who were created by means of him.
J. N. D. Kelly, in his Early Christian Doctrines, writes about the view of Hermas regarding the Son of God:
“In a number of passages we read of an angel who is superior to the six angels forming God’s inner council, and who is regularly described as ‘most venerable’, ‘holy’, and ‘glorious’. This angel is given the name of Michael, and the conclusion is difficult to escape that Hermas saw in him the Son of God and equated him with the archangel Michael.”
“There is evidence also . . . of attempts to interpret Christ as a sort of supreme angel . . . Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign.”21
Papias is also said to have known the apostle John. Likely he wrote early in the second century, but only fragments of his writings exist today. In them he says nothing about a Trinity doctrine.
In the matter of God’s supremacy and his relationship with Jesus, the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers is fairly consistent with the teaching of Jesus, the disciples, and the apostles, as recorded in the Bible. All of them speak of God, not as a Trinity, but as a separate, eternal, almighty, all-knowing Being. And they speak of the Son of God as a separate, lesser, subordinate spirit creature whom God created to serve Him in accomplishing His will. And the holy spirit is nowhere included as an equal of God.
Thus, in those late-first-century and early-second-century writings of the Apostolic Fathers, there is no support for Christendom’s Trinity. They spoke of God, Jesus, and the holy spirit just as the Bible does. Look, for example, at Acts 7:55, 56:
“Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”—Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Stephen saw a vision of God in heaven with Jesus standing next to Him. The Son was standing next to the One termed, not just “Father,” but “God,” one completely separate in identity from Jesus. And there was no third person involved in what Stephen saw. The holy spirit was not seen in heaven with Jesus and his Father.
That is similar to Revelation 1:1, which states: “This is the revelation given by God to Jesus Christ.” (The Jerusalem Bible) Again, the resurrected Christ in heaven is shown to be entirely separate from God, and the holy spirit is not mentioned. If Jesus were the second person of a Trinity, knowing all things, how could he be “given” a revelation?
Scriptures such as these show clearly that there is no Trinity. And no scripture in the entire Bible speaks of God as being a Trinity. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers reflected this. They most certainly did not teach Christendom’s Trinity.
The next important group of writings on Christianity came later in the second century. These were the works of churchmen who are called apologists. Did they teach a Trinity? In a future issue, Part 3 of this series will comment on their teachings.
1. The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1985, Micropædia, Volume 1, page 488.
2. A Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson, 1969, page 95; The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1985, Micropædia, Volume 4, page 79.
3. The Apostolic Fathers, Volume 3, by Robert A. Kraft, 1965, page 163.
4. Ibid., pages 166-7.
5. The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, by Edwin Hatch, 1957, page 252.
6. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition, 1885, Volume I, pages 5, 16, 21.
7. The Library of Christian Classics, Volume 1, Early Christian Fathers, translated and edited by Cyril C. Richardson, 1953, pages 70-1.
8. Ibid., page 60.
9. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, page 52.
10. Ibid., page 58.
11. Ibid., page 62.
12. Ibid., page 108.
13. Ibid., page 116.
14. Ibid., page 53.
15. The Apostolic Fathers, Volume 4, by Robert M. Grant, 1966, page 63.
16. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, pages 46-7; Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, by John McClintock and James Strong, reprinted by Baker Book House Co., 1981, Volume IV, pages 490-3; The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910, Volume VII, pages 644-7.
17. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, page 35.
18. Ibid., page 33.
19. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II, pages 27, 35.
20. The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb’s Classical Library) with an English Translation by Kirsopp Lake, 1976, page 249.
21. Early Christian Doctrines, by J. N. D. Kelly, Second Edition, 1960, pages 94-5.